As a woman who spends a lot of time with words, I am curious to know the deeper meaning with how words are used to describe things. Of course, with my interest in pregnancy and childbirth, I have examined words and phrases that hold more than just letters strung together. Looking up the etymology of words common to contemporary childbirth, I found some things of interest that show the contrast between the art of midwifery and hospital managed birth.
Midwife comes from the combination of Middle English words mid (with) and wif (women). It is a woman assisting, literally a woman who is with the mother at birth. Conversely, the root word of obstetrician is obstetric, from modern Latin word obstetricus meaning “pertaining to a midwife”. To further break down the word obstetric, it comes from the word obstare, which means to stand opposite to. What I found interesting further still is that in my etymological research, I was directed to the word obstacle. Gynecology comes from the French word gynécologie, meaning the study of women. It is the medical practice dealing with the health of the female reproductive system.
Historically, the field of obstetrics and gynecology stems from the medical establishment in Western society purposely becoming an obstacle to women-centered healthcare. It was a specialization for male doctors in the time when women were not permitted to be educated. According to the book, “Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers” by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, the destruction of the midwifery profession was intentional. The patriarchal institutions of the church and the medical system effectively demonized women healers and convinced countless women that they were safer in an operating room than with knowledgeable women who practiced with empirical evidence and compassion; male-led obstetrical care has a violent history of coercion, abuse and unnecessary procedures that were based on superstition and unfounded assumptions.
Dr. James Marion Sims is known as the father of American gynecology. His statue sits on a pedestal in Central Park on 103rd and Fifth Avenue in East Harlem, commonly known as Spanish Harlem. His presence in that community is a slap in the face. It is an abomination. He is credited with developing life-saving surgical procedures involving a way to repair vesico-vaginal fistula and the creation of the speculum. This would be a praise-worthy achievement if it were not connected to a terrifying history of torture. Sims operated on at least 10 enslaved women from about 1845 to 1849, with one woman named Anarcha enduring thirty surgeries without anesthesia. There are accounts of him performing these surgeries on a stage with an audience of men watching these atrocities. The procedures then were used to assist and save white middle class women and in contemporary times, these techniques are certainly valuable. However, we must not forget the violence that they were wrought out of.
Midwifery is antithesis of the current medical model of birth. The vocabulary and terms used by holistic and humanistic midwives is an indication of our views on women and birth. Midwives catch babies. Obstetricians deliver babies. To define catch, it means to intercept and seize, implying taking hold suddenly of something. It also means to receive. On the other hand, to deliver is to hand over and yield. Synonyms for deliver include emancipate, release, redeem and rescue. In this instance, it is clear that though both actions are anything but passive, delivering a baby connotates that there is some impending doom to be avoided by intervention. Midwives are with women and hold the space for birth. Midwives view birth as a natural process of a woman’s life. Obstetricians and hospitals manage birth, implying that birth is a pathological emergency that must be brought under control. It is common to hear obstetricians speak about a woman’s “failure to progress” because of her “incompetent cervix”. These statements are from a deeper misconception that the world holds about women: that they are weak, fragile and in need of being saved, ultimately controlled and coerced by the patriarchal system in place.
Undoubtedly, childbirth is hard. There are occasions in which the use of pain medication is merciful and welcome; the problem is the routine use of epidurals and pitocin that have more harmful side effects than medical professionals are telling their patients. There is a clear power dynamic that exists in which women are treated collectively as inferior by the medical establishment. With all the statistics on the unnecessary interventions performed on women during labor and delivery aside, the words and phrases we use carry a lot of baggage. Particularly in the field of childbirth, our vocabulary works on the subconscious in ways we are not yet privy to. In examining how we frame our communication about childbearing women, we can practice liberation from violence in just the way we speak.
Slaves, Experiments & Dr. Marion Sims’s Statue: Should It Stay or Go? – http://newamericamedia.org/2010/12/dr-marion-sims-statue-where-should-it-stand.php